Identity: How do you identify yourself to your audience?

Internet | Lexicon
There’s been many questions and opinions about what the nature of the online community of bloggers and others is composed of, and very few facts. Here I propose some basic identity questions to ask, as well as other series of questions I have posted previously. At the end I discuss some technical means for taking such a census in a sustainable fashion.

Identity Questions

The first question is as simple as asking someone’s name. Well, that’s hardly simple. Do you use your real name? If you use a pseudonym, can your real name be discovered?

Were this survey limited to “bloggers” we might get an incomplete picture. So I’d like to see how people self-identify themselves: Blogger, diarist, by online group affiliation (e.g. “freeper” or “DUer”– popular conservative and liberal bulletin boards), journalist, writer, none of the above.

And then I’d ask the standard demographics categories: Age, Sex, Race, Religion, Location, Language, Education, Occupation.

I don’t expect each to be answered. For each slice, I’d propose three additional questions:

  • Is this known (or easily guessed) by your readers?
  • Do you write about your own association with this particular identity?
  • Do you seek out people of the same backgrounds to engage?
  • Do you seek out people of opposite backgrounds to engage?

I believe that would provide a far richer picture.

For example, my answers would be– Age: Yes/No/No/No; Sex: Yes/No/No/Yes: Race: Yes/No/No/Yes; Location: Yes/Yes/Yes/Yes; Religion: Yes/Yes/No/Yes. And thus we would go beyond viewing me as a demographic figure, and understand that I am most interested in engaging others on religious matters, and somewhat interested in meeting women writers, and interested in meeting people from all locations. This seems complex, but it’s far simpler than filling out online matchmaking services.

Other Questions

This should round out the work I have done in the last couple of months, putting together sets of questions for the study of the new forms of participatory media:

  • Intent: What is the publisher’s intention?
  • Architecture: How is the content structured?
  • Legitimacy: How responsible is the publication to its readers?

Lastly, do we want to know the opinions of writers as well? A few blog evangelists (Gillmor, Rosen) and one online press critic (Shafer) have expressed that objectivity is dead, and journalism’s salvation is to have every writer openly declare their biases, to the point of divulging whom they vote for. I maintain that such an approach is pointless and counter-productive. In addition it is practically impossible to do with the current weblogging technology today. Instead I have proposed the Hearsay Network as a more effective way of tracking opinions.

How to do this study

The last thing we deserve is a random sample– how undemocratic! We really can do an Internet census.

Anyone with a blog (or any publishing home online) has the potential to post their answers in a public feed. That is, once we develop the technology for that (chiefly, XML Schemas, and adapt publishing software to support it). Doing so would allow users to have full control over the answers, and would be able to change them over time without having to be visit a central polling authority.

Will we count everyone? Well, over time, we should count everyone who stands up to be counted. Technorati tracks 7.5 million, and I’d be curious how many of those would “stand up.” The NITLE survey of 20 months ago found that only 2/3 of accessible blogs were still active.

How do we prevent double-counting? Well, for one, we may want to allow for double-counting to account for someone who wears multiple hats online. But I don’t expect that to be too common. People should register with a service like the identity commons which may be able to guarantee uniqueness. Certainly, it’s in the best interest of participants to invest in systems which can provide this.

Now, if some portion of the populaiton doesn’t want to be uniquely authenticated, we will have learned something right there as well.